Just two days after the best performance we've seen from them in years, Aston Villa promptly nuked every single positive feeling lingering from the away win against Chelsea by putting on a stunningly incompetent display and handing Swansea City their first top-flight away win since 1982. The visitors took the lead in the 4th minute after Stephen Warnock all but put the ball in the net himself, passing back to no one and letting Nathan Dyer run right past him into space (which would become a theme) before finishing past Brad Guzan. Swansea put the game out of reach just after the start of the second half, Wayne Routledge capitalizing on a poor clearance and far poorer positioning from Brad Guzan to double Swansea's lead in the 47th minute. Villa looked up for it until the second goal, but at that point the deflation was evident and the rest of the way saw sloppy passing, aimless crosses into a box packed densely with white-shirted visitors and the increasingly audible roars of disapproval from the Villa Park faithful.
There's plenty of blame to go around in this one; Stephen Warnock was heroically good against Chelsea, but his performance today was so poor it could have easily led to several more Swansea goals. Brad Guzan had to this point doing brilliantly in relief of the injured Shay Given, but he really could have done better on the first goal and the second was largely his responsibility. Charles N'Zogbia and Stephen Ireland both started well, but Ireland looked gassed before the hour mark and was nearly invisible by the time he was withdrawn while N'Zogbia's frustration became pretty clear as the game wore on and his effectiveness suffered as a result. Gabby Agbonlahor had what was probably his poorest game of the season and Darren Bent got quite a few touches today and did absolutely nothing with them, more often than not losing possession almost immediately. The fans seemed to turn their ire towards Alex McLeish, and when Ireland was withdrawn the excruciating "You don't know what you're doing" refrain made it's first (at least that I have noticed) appearance of the season, despite the fact that Ireland looked ready to fall over dead at any given moment and hadn't done anything positive in nearly half an hour. McLeish is certainly deserving of some blame, but the performances from so many players were so unbelievably bad that I'm not exactly sure what else he really could have done once the game began save for bringing on Barry Bannan a bit earlier; the game plan was what I think everyone wants to see more of, and before everything went to hell I was actually quite pleased with the tactics. This was just a terrible performance by a team from which more should be expected.
Villa as a whole looked exhausted for the majority of the second half, and it's more than a little bit worrying that Swansea were able to make seven changes from their weekend draw against Spurs while Villa managed just one. That was clearly a factor as the game wore on and made a comeback more difficult, but the game was essentially lost well before it would have been expected to be an issue. This game may have looked different had Barry Bannan or Alan Hutton (who was actually pretty decent after coming on for an injured Carlos Cuellar) started, but beyond that there just weren't a lot of other options that would have changed the game at all. That, to me, is the biggest concern; if Villa's best XI are fit and on form, they're a pretty good team. Otherwise, you get the kind of game we saw today. There's just very, very little proven quality outside of the top 14-15 players, and it makes even minor fixture congestion (or injury struggles, or a player or two hitting a rough patch) a massive problem. With any real bolstering of the squad looking unlikely until August at the earliest, that means Villa are going to be an uneven, unpredictable team for the rest of the season. The kind of team that embarrasses Chelsea at Stamford Bridge day and then gets shellacked by a newly promoted team at Villa Park 48 hours later, for example.
For their part, Swansea were excellent; that was not a team that looks like they'll have any serious trouble staying in the top flight, and with a young core of players they may well be around for a little while. But without some very shocking errors they may not have scored, and we're looking at yet another 0-0 draw, or possibly even a better result for Villa as their confidence looked to be on the rise for the latter part of the first half. But that Villa make such errors with alarming frequency and seem to capitulate so readily is a huge worry. I still see a legitimate relegation battle this season as a massive long-shot, but it's just strange to see a club like Villa in this state. I know very little about Villa's financial state and I trust Randy Lerner to do the correct thing on the business side of things, but that it's gotten to this point is stunning.
Villa has a strong core of veterans supplemented by some very promising youngsters, but they also have some massive weaknesses that a club of their size shouldn't not be financially unable to address. I don't know who's to blame and to what extent, but it's frustrating beyond belief. I'm still hopeful that this is a one-year stripping-down, the result a leaner and more sustainable wage bill that will allow for some some more investment going forward. But if it's not, it's difficult to see this club ever really doing much other than bouncing around the middle of the table, no matter who is in charge. That's fine if it comes to pass; after all, we'll still have moments like the one we experienced on New Year's Eve. But it's going to take some adjustment.